Monsters Among Us

When my mother came to take us to the battered women’s shelter, she brought with her a copy of Zombies Ate My Neighbors for the Sega Genesis. My brother and I sat in the principal’s office. We were pulled out of class around eleven. The principal came to our respective classrooms and ushered us into his office. When we stepped inside, my mom was already there, her eyes looking very old in the clinically bright lighting. I was seven and my brother was five. I only knew that instead of sitting in school for another couple hours, I was going to be saving the world from zombies.

Zombies Ate My Neighbors allows you to pick between two characters, a brother and sister. The boy, Zeke, has spiky blond hair and wears iconic red-and-blue 3-D glasses. It’s as though the horrors he sees are analogous to the monster flicks he’s cut his teeth on, that plain-old reality isn’t quite real enough. The avatar is apt to live in a world that is realer than real, where signs and symbols are stripped to their barest, most monstrous elements. The girl, Julie, has her brown hair pulled into a ponytail that peeks out of her red ballcap. In the character selection screen, she brandishes a blue squirt gun that resembles an Uzi. She’s smiling. The stakes are clear; the supernatural world has bled into ours. Zombies, werewolves, evil dolls, slime creatures, and aliens, to name a few, have invaded the neighborhood and, as monsters tend to do, have started killing everyone in sight. Equipped with their trusty squirt guns, the two protagonists decide that it’s their job to save those they can. Each level has a varying number of innocents that you have to save from certain doom. The game makes it clear that saving everyone isn’t an option, so as many as you can manage is the goal. Whenever a monster reaches a person before you do—a man at his grill, a cheerleader—they shriek and their ghostly likeness ascends into the sky. When you save enough bystanders in a stage, a magical EXIT door opens, allowing you to travel into the next world. The weaponry is childish, simplistic, often involving objects that a kid would have access to: the aforementioned squirt guns, banana popsicles, shook up cans of soda. As the game progresses, though, so does the weaponry. Eventually you gain access to crucifixes, lawn mowers, chainsaws, and bazookas. It escaped us—did our mother tell us as much at the time?—that we were heading to the shelter because she feared that my father was going to kill us all in a fit of rage. She claimed that he kept three shotgun shells on the mantle, one for each of us.

Years later, when Dad became more of a smoking buddy than a father, he would clarify that they were tubes of B-Bs, not shotgun shells. He made it very, very clear that he thought my mother had overreacted, that the entire ordeal was performative because she was paranoid that he had been sleeping around. Which he had been. He claims that he didn’t sleep with the other woman until after he was police ordered out of the house, but I distinctly remember (though the timeline remains fuzzy) a mafia-style sit-down with the whole family in which he confessed to my brother and me the exact nature of his sins. The conversation went as far as telling us that he’d given Mom an STD. I was seven and my brother was five. He believes to this day that the restraining order and his moving out were, in fact, the machinations of nothing short of total character assassination. Who am I supposed to believe? The two of them ended up getting back together after many months of his living in a repurposed video store in Parker, complete with a slot for late returns. On one day when my mom was picking us up from weekend custody, which involved all three of us sleeping on a foldout in a single room with a chemical toilet a few feet away, my dad and mom asked for my brother and me to entertain ourselves in the backyard. They locked the door behind us. After many minutes of kicking around in the brown grass, curiosity got the best of me: I walked around to the front of the house and peeked in the return slot. I saw the two of them naked on the floor. I met eyes with my dad, who yelled from an animal place. I ran to the backyard and pretended that I’d been there all along. To this day I don’t know whether he knows it was me who was looking in. A few days later, he moved back into the house. Things never went back to normal, and my mom made it clear years later that everything that she did, she did it for me and my brother.

I feared my dad for the entirety of my childhood. While he never actually hit me or my brother, the implication of violence was always there. On an afternoon in which I was watching something on TV that he wasn’t interested in, for instance, he grabbed the remote from my hands and threw it through the wall. On other occasions—such as my spilling a glass of milk on the hardwood—he’d storm off and punch a hole in the wall, slam doors, break an appropriate number of his collector’s plates. After he retreated to the basement, I snuck into the backroom to see the Harley archipelago or the many pieces of a Cobra helicopter, the same make that he worked on during his stint in Vietnam. I was a chubby kid, and he made me terribly ashamed to be without a shirt. I overheard him on many occasions lamenting to my mother that having a son with tits was like not having a son at all. I got into the habit of wrapping a towel up to my chest, as I saw my mother do, when I undertook the brief walk from the shower to my room. He told me years later that his father, as a cruel joke that grew into more than that, would burst into the bathroom while he was bathing to snap a photograph. He threatened to show it to his friends and the rest of the family if he didn’t behave in church. My dad came by it honest.

As my mother vacillated between weeping and putting on a strong face, my brother and I worked our way through the levels. At first you were in the neighborhood, then a mall, then a hedge maze complete with hockey-masked maniacs, a tomb replete with shambling mummies, a warehouse full of Chucky-style dolls, a football field where Martians had taken up the mantle of abducting cheerleaders. The first boss was a giant baby. It was a worthy advisory, and it took us many, many lives to eventually overcome its fervent wailing and destruction. As the levels progressed, the severity of the invasion became clear: we weren’t just saving the neighborhood. The entire world was at stake. We innately understood the importance of our quest.

We didn’t grasp at the time that it was we who were being saved, that the hero in this story was the lovely black woman who cooked meals for the women and children, who offered her shoulder again and again and again. I don’t remember much beyond playing hours and hours of games, something that we weren’t allowed to do at our own house. It seemed to me a kind of paradise, one in which the burdens of school and chores were shrugged off in favor of the real work: saving mankind one pixel at a time. It was during these days, too, that I met people of color for the first time in my life. My dad was—and is—a devout racist. We were raised from a young age to view non-white people as lesser, as potentially dangerous, as barnacles on the otherwise magnificent galleon of American exceptionalism. I was surprised to find that these kids were, well, kids. Just like my brother and me. They loved video games. They understood the gravity of our pixilated undertaking. Their mother sported a really nasty looking shiner. I remember being amazed that her skin bruised just as ours did. We took turns with the two brothers, level to level, and when one of us died, we all died. When the mummies overtook an archeologist, we all bore the shame of our lacking ability.

As I said, only in retrospect do I recognize that we were the ones in need of saving. Whether it is true or not—I’m again caught in the feedback loops of whose story bore the reality of the situation—my mom believed in her heart that we weren’t safe at home. When confronted with the option of fight or flight, she flew. She did what she believed was best for us.

I don’t know how long we were there. The days blurred together. When we weren’t playing Sega, we watched Jurassic Park again and again on a small TV in the backroom. The years have ossified around these days like amber around the film’s all-important mosquitoes. To extract the truth from them now, to extract it one helix at a time and bid it breathe on its own, feels like an impossible task because it is an impossible task. In the film, the results of the experiment are disastrous. This kind of extrapolation can never turn out like we want it to. It’s liable to tear apart the world as we know it, to sunder us where we stand. A silver-bullet memory doesn’t chamber itself because we’re desperate for an easier, softer way to kill a monster that might (who knows?) in reality be a coat draped over a chair, the light striking it so as to make the mundane appear fearsome. Is it our curiosity itself that adorns quick fangs and a taste for blood? Our desire to find a vantage in which the whole story appears to be immaculately curated like a town for model trains to wind around?

What does become clear: no matter the impressive caliber of our weaponry, my brother and I would never be given the tools to save our parents from themselves. The devil’s in the details. Dad’s sleeping in the backroom now. Mom’s dead. My dad has gained increased confidence that his version of the story is the unmistakable truth. In the days leading up to her death, he toyed with the idea of confronting her over the entire ordeal, nearly 25 years after it all went down. When what she needed from us was to be there, he couldn’t think of anything other than her admitting that it was all a terrible ruse. He went as far as saying that she was sick because of the guilt she harbored over her decision to get a restraining order, to take me and my brother out of school over false pretenses. He went as far as telling her that she couldn’t be certain of where she’d go after she died (she was a devout Christian until the end) because she wouldn’t come clean about what had actually happened so many years ago. Once we moved her to a hospital bed in the living room, she made it clear that he wasn’t welcome in the room. She didn’t want to see him. Instead of thinking about his role in the situation, my dad now white knuckles this detail as undeniable evidence that she knew in her heart of hearts that she was in the wrong. Now that she’s gone, he feels comfortable arranging the pieces however he wants. And now here I am, pushing the shards around, trying to make a shattered thing make aesthetic sense.

My brother and I never made it to the end of Zombies Ate My Neighbors. Years after the events that transpired when we were kids, I looked up the ending of the game on YouTube. It turns out that the monsters weren’t arbitrary, that the world wasn’t plagued simply because the cheerleaders and grilling men deserved swift death. A mad scientist willed it to happen, spent his days figuring out ways to enmonster otherwise placid beasts. You face him in the final boss fight. His giant head flies around the room and shoots eyeballs toward your avatar. The culmination of countless lost lives and gallons of squirt gun water. Then he’s dead. The game is over. The word WINNER flashes on the screen while fireworks go off for what appears to be the remainder of time. The game then reviews how many of each enemy you’ve killed throughout the course of the game. 245 zombies, 37 mummies, etc.

After the boss fight—when it’s clear that you’ve saved the world from the mad scientist—there’s a bonus stage in lieu of credits. It’s called “Monsters Among Us.” You get to walk around the LucasArts studio, a generic-looking office, and talk to avatars of the folks who made the game. There are monsters here, too: Chucky dolls hobbling around the cubicles, ghosts in the desks. It’s possible to die here as well, which suggests that even after the fight is over, there’s still a constant and implicit danger among us. The “boss,” a disembodied head, much like the mad scientist, floats around the office and chases you whenever he sees you. This final stage breaks the fourth wall, drawing attention to how the monsters we face are created, not organically scattered throughout the world. They’re not born of thin air. Someone made all of them, and we decide again and again that our world is richer for these chthonic reverberations. What’s worse: we are the monsters—and it takes the entire game, and countless dead, to come to that realization. One of the curses of being a human is in knowing what we’re capable of.

There’s no true epilogue. The game never addresses what happens to the boy or the girl. Instead, the final moment of the game allows you to enter your initials, encouraging others that play the game to see exactly how well you did on this particular excursion to save the world. This past weekend I returned to Pennsylvania to prod my dad into (finally) ordering my mom’s tombstone. He dragged his feet on the matter for over a year, made it very clear that he didn’t feel like it was worth the money. The predatory nature of the funeral system aside, she deserves her initials etched in stone, perhaps signifying nothing more than she played as well as she could, that—like the rest of us—the game had gotten the best of her.

What happens to the boy and the girl doesn’t matter. What matters is that the world’s safe in the brief space between the game’s end and the title screen, where you’re free—and encouraged—to relive the horror all over again. What’s more, you’re now equipped with a veritable panoply of codes that appear at the end of each level, allowing you to jump to whichever chapter you’d like, meaning you could teleport to the mad scientist from the get-go, skipping the endless waves of zombies and other nightmarish beasties. In remembering the traumatic, we input the code again because we must. It’s easy to sometimes forget the levels that lead up to a boss fight, the things that they teach us about the horrors that we’re about to meet. It feels like we could do it better this time, that there’s a manner of remembering that can somehow break the cycle, that Truth can yet descend from its perch in the heavens, plucking gold-hewn chords, heralding the days ahead in which there’s nothing left in us to fear.